Drama unfolds in just 10 minutes at annual 8 Tens @ Eight Festival
It started as a local contest, challenging Santa Cruz and Bay Area playwrights to create complete plays that run exactly 10 minutes for possible inclusion in a miniature theater festival. Nineteen years later, The 8 Tens @ Eight Festival draws submissions from around the world, and is considered both a time-honored and well-loved tradition in the local theater scene.
Produced by Santa Cruz County Actors’ Theatre, 8 Tens @ Eight runs Jan. 3-26 at Center Stage Theater, and features all local actors and directors. This year’s contest winners include “Nevermore” by Kat Meads, “Speed Dating” by James Chadbourn, “Santa Story” by Mark Cornell, “Last and Always” by Allan Baker, “Motherhood” by Elyce Melmon, “Waiting for 7” by Phillip Hall, “The Return” by Ross Tandowsky, and “Strawberry Fields” by Ian McRae.
“The beauty of the format is that everybody ends up with a different favorite play,” says McRae. “What sparks or connects for everyone is different. For me, something in the play must ring true instinctually, or have the ability to come to life while the central conflict is resolved.”
Chadbourn, Meads, Melmon and Tandowsky are all local or Bay Area-based playwrights, but other winners from this year’s pool of 135 submissions hailed from as far away as Texas and North Carolina. Artistic Director and festival founder Wilma Marcus Chandler says that regardless of where the playwrights are from, there is always an even mix of humorous and dramatic formats among the winning entries. But despite that balance, she notes that almost every year there is an underlying theme that unites the plays.
“Every year has a different feeling,” explains Marcus Chandler. “One year, practically every play was about food. Another year was all about romance and falling in love, and another year there was a lot of content about ghosts.”
This year, Marcus Chandler found that many of the winning plays (comedic or dramatic) reflect on darker themes, like loneliness, loss, and longing. One such play is McRae’s “Strawberry Fields,” which centers on the reflections of a retired New York police officer and Vietnam veteran.
“[‘Strawberry Fields’] came from a character that could be part of a full-length play,” says McRae. “I wrote this big monologue for him and once I started, I realized he could stand on his own. You can end up with pieces and loose ends that don’t necessarily go anywhere but sometimes that’s where you find your 10-minute play.”
Because 8 Tens @ Eight receives so many worthy submissions each year, Marcus Chandler created a special showcase to honor the eight runners up, known as The Best of the Rest Festival. This year’s Best of the Rest runs Jan. 30-Feb. 2.
“A few years after the 8 Tens started, we decided that the runners up were sometimes equally, or even more interesting than the winners,” Marcus Chandler laughs. “So we decided to give those plays a chance to be heard as well, but we present them as works in progress.”
The Best of the Rest plays are presented as staged readings with less attention paid to costumes and sets. Still, the cast members treat each piece with the same respect they would give any other play, and closely study the scripts prior to performing.
“There is so much talent in the Santa Cruz acting community,” says Gerry Gerringer, a self proclaimed “old theater dog” and long-time festival participant. “They can create very real and believable characters that connect with audiences from on stage, even with their scripts in hand.”
The local theater community has lauded both festivals as a wonderful meeting space for longtime theater lovers and newcomers alike. Although the 10-minute play requires a smaller time commitment than a full-length production, there are more positions to fill between playwrights, actors, directors, and tech crews for all 16 plays.
“It’s an excellent venue for the local theater community, while still being accessible for the broader community,” says Gerringer. “There are opportunities for beginners, people who haven’t done a play since high school, or someone who wants to learn how to direct—anyone who wants to put the puzzle together.”
The accessibility of the productions extends far beyond the cast and crew. As Marcus Chandler sees it, between the 16 plays and the wide variety of themes they touch on, both festivals have something for everyone.
“If you hate it, just wait 10 minutes, and there will be another one,” she laughs. “I’m joking around, but it’s true. A 10-minute play happens quickly—you experience it and you either hold onto it or you let it go. Here you have  opportunities to do that.”
The 8 Tens @ Eight Festival runs Jan. 3-26 at Center Stage, 1001 Center St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $20/general, $18/seniors and students. The Best Of The Rest runs Jan. 30-Feb. 2 at Center Stage. Tickets are $15. For more information and tickets, call 335-4409 or visit actorssc.org. Photo: Steve DiBartolomeo